New Book Sheds Lights on the Conservative Movement in 1950s Milwaukee

Nov. 22, 2016
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The mayorship of socialist Frank Zeidler (1948 to 1960) can be all too easily taken as a sign of Milwaukee being a kind of post-war liberal Mecca. The truth behind Zeidler’s reign, of course, is much more complicated. Indeed, Milwaukee’s history of electing Socialist mayors (three in total, holding office for all but 12 of the years between 1910 and 1960) runs in contrast to the reality that it was never really a Socialist-majority city. Behind the façade of Socialist leaders, who practiced a breed of Socialism unique to the city, Milwaukee was often fairly conservative by big city standards, a trend that became most obvious during Zeidler’s three terms in office. In the new book from the University of Illinois Press, Conservative Counterrevolution: Challenging Liberalism in 1950s Milwaukee, author and historian Tula A. Connell sheds new light on one of the most transformative periods in Milwaukee history.

Connell frames the narrative around a handful of battles between Milwaukee’s New Deal liberal factions and its right-wing business and civic leaders, groups with starkly contrasted visions for the postwar role of federal and local government. The conflicts are largely economic at their surface, but Connell does well to explore the base concepts at issue, namely the meaning of freedom – as defined by both left and right – and the fear of Communism in the early years of the Cold War.

Frank and Agnes Zeidler on election day, 1952

Connell also examines factors of race, mostly in the battles over open housing and public housing. One of the most gripping episodes covered is the 1956 mayoral campaign between Zeidler and Third Ward alderman Milton McGuire. The contest was marked by many incidents of open racism by McGuire, who campaigned with the unofficial slogan “Milwaukee needs an honest white man for mayor” and insisted that Zeidler was “being too friendly to Negroes.” The tone of the race grew so ugly that Zeidler eventually needed around-the-clock police protection at his home because of the numerous threats on him and his family. Zeidler won the election 55-45% - the narrowest margin of any Milwaukee mayoral election between 1948 and 1988. The tone, and closeness, of the race caused TIME Magazine to call it “the Shame of Milwaukee.”

Connell also takes an in-depth look at a topic that has been mostly neglected in Milwaukee’s historiography – the media. Both the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel grew more conservative during this era, part of a national trend as media organizations became more intertwined with corporate interests. Connell also discusses the decline of the foreign-language and labor presses as contributing to the overall shift right of the media. Of particular note are her discussions of the South Side weekly Milwaukee Times, which espoused both economic conservatism and thinly-veiled racism, and the battle over channel 10. Zeidler wanted channel 10 to operate as a city-owned educational channel. Business leaders wanted it to be a privately-operated frequency. The long fight over the future of the station, and local government’s role in the new medium of broadcast television, is rightly given its own chapter and sets the tone for many of the political battles to come.

Conservative Counterrevolution is an essential volume of Milwaukee history. It provides a background to the present-day racial divides in the city and the ongoing war between city and suburb. It offers a detailed examination of Frank Zeidler, one of the city’s most important historical figures and connects his battles with the right up to the rise of Scott Walker and the passage of the highly controversial Act 10 (which, surprisingly, Zeidler probably would have supported). Wonkish, yet still accessible, Connell’s book is an important one, both in understanding where we have come from and where we are today.

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